Gray Skies

If Gov. Davis has his way, California soon will have dozens of new power plants -- a lot of them in the wrong places, some of them unnecessary, and very, very few of them based on renewable energy

San Francisco's municipal power entity, Hetch Hetchy Water and Power, is seeking a developer for a 520-megawatt plant at San Francisco International Airport. (A contract dispute between the airport and the original developer, Texas-based El Paso Corp., has put the project on hold.) The Energy Commission is also supposed to ignore Virginia-based AES Corp.'s hopes to proceed with a 570-megawatt plant in South San Francisco. (That plant is pending review by the commission, according to its spokesman, Aaron Thomas.)

San Francisco's current electrical demand is a little more than 900 megawatts; its projected demand for the year 2010 is about 1,200 megawatts. The proposed plant-building boom would seem to give the San Francisco area a huge power surplus, especially in light of the ISO's unwillingness to commit to shutting Hunters Point before 2006, and Mirant's staunch refusal to shut its older, dirtier units if or when its new plant comes online.

And yet the Energy Commission's preliminary report on the Potrero project featured no mention of either project. Why?

For one thing, because the state's deregulation law forbids the Energy Commission from considering need for electricity when reviewing a power plant proposal; the commission's review of the new Potrero Hill station in southeast San Francisco cannot take into account other projects that would provide new power to the area.

The Energy Commission should be considering environmental impacts of all plants in its review pipeline. But Susan Lee, the commission bureaucrat in charge of "alternatives" analysis of the Potrero project, says, "We started this work before this so-called "energy crisis' started. Keeping up with all these developments is really difficult."

Answers like that aren't endearing the CEC to the people who live next to the proposed Potrero plant, projected to operate for 40 years.

"There's a lot of compartmentalizing of responsibility, and citizens don't like it," says Cal Broomhead, of the city's Department of the Environment. "At some point, you need to elevate these things above the partitions. But I don't know where in the process that's going to happen."

The uncoordinated planning efforts of the Energy Commission raise an increasingly plausible scenario for the southeast section of San Francisco: The expanded, 900-megawatt Potrero facility and the plant at Hunters Point could run simultaneously from 2003, the expected online date for Potrero, until at least 2006, when Davis' moratorium on power-plant closures ends. And in the meantime, huge power plants could be built just down the road in South San Francisco and at SFO.

Maxwell says that scenario is "unacceptable" to the community she represents.

But does it matter what the community thinks?

Davis made headlines statewide when, in spite of local government and resident objections, he endorsed Calpine's Metcalf Energy Center in San Jose, effectively ordering his appointees on the Energy Commission to approve the plant. Politically pinned, Mayor Ron Gonzalez and the San Jose City Council eventually supported the project. But the message was clear: We brake for nobody.

And the message was received. At the Board of Supervisors meeting on May 29, Maxwell made something of a pre-emptive strike: a city ordinance designed to give the supervisors more control over energy matters. "The practicalness of it is that we don't want more pollution," Maxwell says. "This makes all city departments that deal with energy answer to us, so when we ask the [Public Utilities Commission] how much we need as a city, and Mirant tells us it wants to build a 540-megawatt plant, we can say, "Is that 540 megawatts for us, or for you to make money?'"

To this point, however, the ordinance hasn't meant much. Even though the legislation was issued before the Energy Commission released its preliminary assessment of the Potrero Hill project, the commission opted not to incorporate the city's new law into the analysis of the Potrero plant, except for a cursory mention.

That is, the Energy Commission proceeded as though nothing had changed.

By the evening of June 23, when the workshops on the Potrero expansion have reached their final installment, it's clear that the community groups of southeast San Francisco and the California Energy Commission are pretty much sick of each other.

The neighborhood groups are agitated because the commission staffers presented a preliminary analysis that, to them, completely skirted the sensitive issue of environmental justice. And, from the looks of it, the CEC folks are tired of being hounded about the admitted incompleteness of their report.

Susan Lee, the bureaucrat in charge of the alternatives analysis, has already finished summarizing her report when Alan Ramo -- the Golden Gate University law professor, who also works with the Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice -- stands at a microphone to the right of Lee's podium. He gets angrier as he goes through what seems to be a list of grievances, beginning with state waffling on whether the Hunters Point power plant will be closed, and culminating with the Energy Commission's refusal to consider a scenario that would actually reduce pollution in the southeast -- the combination of a smaller gas-fired plant than is being proposed with city supervisors' plans for renewable energy, some transmission upgrades for reliability's sake, and the closures of the Hunters Point plant and the Potrero Hill peaker generators.

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